You didn’t need to be reminded of this, but Tommy Pham is a hero. I don’t mean in a patriotic sense (though I would certainly pledge my allegiance to him), rather a baseball sense. Since his call up last May, he’s been the National League’s best player and a delightful story that even the most optimistic Cardinal prospect hounds couldn’t have predicted.
Last week I started the totally aimless exercise of asking, “What if Tommy Pham wasn’t such a great story?” What if, instead of a 29-year-old breakout star, he was a guy who broke out in his mid-20’s, established himself as a star player and continued on with his career the same as most players do? In that piece, I determined that Tommy Pham – in this case breaking out in 2014 – would have been worth around 3 WAR manning the fourth outfielder role. In 2015, Pham would’ve won the starting center fielder spot and been worth just north of 5 WAR, likely surpassing Matt Carpenter as the team’s second best player behind Jason Heyward. In neither season would his (numerical) influence been demonstrable on the team, though his presence could have propelled the 2015 Cardinals past the Cubs.
So now we enter the latter two years of Tommy Pham’s fictional career. Here we’ll be looking at years that make up Pham’s peak and – interestingly enough – the beginning of his decline.
Like last time, a few notes:
- Obviously a lot of this will be based on educated guesses and presumption, so bear with me on some of the guess work and sometimes quick maths.
- I’m going to try and guess how Pham’s emergence would have affected personnel decisions as best I can. Obviously, there will be a few key differences.
- In my first post, I messed up on some of the WAR calculations. The WAR calculators actually rated Pham much more similarly than I originally noted. The changes are reflected in the original post.
The 2016 season was not a fun one for the Cardinals, the swindling of the Royals for José Martinez not withstanding. It was the first time in 4 years they hadn’t been to the NLCS, the first time in 5 they missed the playoffs entirely, and the first time since the inauguration of William H. Taft that the rival Chicago Cubs won the World Series. I remember the exact moment the Cardinals were eliminated from the postseason on the last Sunday of the season. I was at a music festival, and it almost ruined my afternoon.
The Cardinals outfield was in desperate need of peak Tommy Pham that year. Matt Holliday was having his swan song with the Cardinals and, despite one of the more magical goodbye moments I can remember for a Cardinal, was a below average player. Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk were better in their first year as starters, but not by much. In fact, the Cardinals best position player was Matt Carpenter, who even took a step back from a value standpoint due to his deteriorating defense.
At this point in Pham’s life, he’s 28 years old. Aging curves mostly show 27 and 28 as the peak of a position players career, their athleticism and youth combining to make up the most ideal circumstances for success. We’re in a bit of a bind as to calculating Tommy Pham’s “prime” because when he broke out last year, he was technically past it. Clearly that didn’t stop him, as he was worth 6.1 fWAR in 530 plate appearances. So for this year, I kept it relatively simple and just averaged those rates out to 600 plate appearances (or 150 games based on a simple 4 plate appearances per game method.) Here’s what I kicked out:
This isn’t too far off from his real-world 2017 statistics, though the slugging percentage is noticeably higher. What’s probably the biggest difference maker is that I rated Pham’s defense and base running as “very good” based on the two WAR calculators I mentioned last time. The first takes this season and rates it at 7 WAR, while the second is almost a win higher at 7.7 WAR.
How does it affect the season: Matt Holliday was easily the worst of the starting outfielders, but the Cardinals weren’t going to move him from his spot to make room for Stephen Piscotty who, in this universe, didn’t even get a lot of time the year before. So Pham is likely slotting in for Piscotty in the team’s season totals. This does make a major difference for the Cardinals as he would’ve been worth just about 5 more wins. So the Cardinals, who missed the Wild Card play-in by one game, are all of the sudden sitting at 91-71 instead of 86-76 and are now the first wild card. Let’s say the beat they Mets in that game and are now facing the eventual World Champion Chicago Cubs.
Look, I’m not here saying the Cardinals would’ve knocked the baby bears out of the playoffs, continuing their miserable championship-less streak. But I am saying it would be a very Cardinals thing to do, and the universe where the Cubs don’t win the World Series is a significantly funnier than the one we live in now. All because of Tommy Pham too!
When I started this thought exercise, I told myself I was going to be true to what I found in my research. I wasn’t going to play too conservative in my guesses or sugarcoat things I didn’t want to find out. Here’s where that finally comes into play.
You can see this basic FanGraphs aging curve shows there’s a slight downward tick in a player’s production at age 29. This isn’t exact math (remember, I studied journalism to avoid it), but I decided to take the following measures in aging Tommy Pham:
- I kept his base running the same as it was, but I did drop him from “very good” to “solid” defense.
- I took 10 games from him on the schedule, likely due to another injury.
- I also decided to knock some of his basic production rates by about 10 percent.
- The only thing that I made a positive change on (completely unscientifically, mind you) were his walk and strikeout percentages. I figured despite his drop in athletic production, his batting eye would not change and might even improve with more time spent in The Show.
I should first point out that, again, this is a very good season. By the two WAR calculators, we’re looking at a 5.1 and 5.6 WAR season, respectively. That is less than the number Pham put up in his real-life 2017 season (in more plate appearances, as well), but this version of Tommy Pham would still be the best player on his team by a fair margin.
How does it affect the season: Not much. Pham was about a win more valuable than this in real life, and the Cardinals missed the playoffs by a few games. The Cardinals aren’t likely to have a different result on the whole, although maybe Mozeliak and Girsch are making a mental note that Pham just had his worst season since his initial breakout.
So what good is this exercise in the end? Probably not much, though I think it asks an interesting question: Would you rather have this proven version of Tommy Pham, and all that he entails… or the one we currently have, older and less proven, but also maybe better?
In the first scenario, there are two tangible benefits. First, we get several more years of Tommy Pham, one of the most fun players to come through St. Louis in a long while. That may seem subjectively valuable, but not if you like watching good, fun baseball.
The second, more important, benefit is two more possible runs at the World Series. In 2015, the Cardinals would be taking on the Cubs with another star-level player and have a decent chance to revive the I-70 series if they are able to best their rival to the north. In 2016, they’re getting yet another shot at the Cubbies and, while the chances probably aren’t great they move on, the playoffs are inherently wild.
As for me, though, I’m sticking with the version of Tommy Pham we already have. His breakout last year was probably the best Cardinals story in a decade and his story is now one that includes a salty Sports Illustrated interview and a perpetual chip on his shoulder. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, he may be better than the fictional version I cooked up. Despite several short injury stints, he’s still a Top 5 outfielder in the MLB on the young 2018 season.
Besides, the possibility of a Tommy Pham that’s great into his early 30’s is a more intriguing premise to me than one who trod the path many have trodden before him. Pham is too good, too noble, too damn exciting to be another boring baseball story, don’t you think?